Season Reset

Notre Dame dug a December hole with its non-conference performance, losing two of three matchups vs. the Big 10 while dropping an unexpected additional pair along the way. With Saturday's win over No. 7 Duke, the Irish announced their presence with authority in the expanded and improved Athletic Coast Conference -- and jumped back into the national consciousness and NCAA consideration as well.

"I told them in the locker room that it could be a different group finishing the game on Tuesday night."

If Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey's post-game words from Saturday's 79-77 win over Duke prove prescient -- and if that disparate group finishes Tuesday as well as its brethren did against the Blue Devils Saturday afternoon -- a purportedly lost Irish season will officially be back on track.

Until then, a sense of the remarkable -- and oh-so-satisfying 1-0 -- will have to suffice.

Over the last 21 days, Notre Dame has defeated the two programs in this great land that have plagued it since the dawn of basketball time. Indiana and Duke.

48 losses in 69 previous games vs. Indiana. A remarkable 19 in 21 vs. Duke.

2013? Win and win. (Throw in a victory last December vs. a third historical foil in Kentucky (19-42 overall) and the Irish hoopsters have exorcised some serious demons over the last 13 months.)

So while the unexpected non-conference wounds of the 2013 home slate (Indiana State and North Dakota State) still linger, it's fair to say Notre Dame's upset of college basketball's blue bloods Saturday in South Bend puts the new Irish Nine back where they belong -- on track to duke it out for an NCAA bid.

"To beat that program, the flagship program of the ACC," Brey began, "This is the team you have to beat in the ACC if you want to feel and look like you belong. Now, what I have to remind everybody, we still have 17 league games to play. Tomorrow is not Selection Sunday, as much as I would like it to be."

Notre Dame's resume might not yet be tournament worthy -- though it's 64-61 giveaway to No. 3 and still undefeated Ohio State on December 21 would have made it so -- but the Irish might be better on Selection Sunday than they are today. Brey's squad proved Saturday it can go big (Garrick Sherman is a certified low-block scorer), it can play small-ball (more on that below), it can break a defense down off the dribble (was that Eric Atkins or Tony Parker?), and it can still stroke it from long range (an economical 6 for 12 from beyond the arc in a game it dominated in the paint).

They're an unfinished product. One with a major feather in its new conference cap.

"Our group, this team of guys, has been through some tough stuff since the Ohio State game, and for us to come together and win a game like this after being down 10, I am very proud of us," said Brey in reference to the aforementioned loss to the Buckeyes and a contest they led by eight points with under 50 seconds remaining.

Notre Dame won Saturday, and escaped a 60-50 hole in the process, because its in-game adjustments were far superior to Duke's.

Unable to guard the Blue Devils on the perimeter with their starters (Duke started a remarkable 11 for 21 from beyond the arc), Brey went small: 6'8" sophomore Austin Burgett became the "center" with two swingmen and two point guards in tow.

"We got Sherm (Garrick Sherman) out of there, we got Burgett in there and we played small. That lineup did two things," Brey offered. "It really helped us defend, we switched everything, but they were hard to guard too. Our lineup was really hard to guard. We had that floor spread. We really moved without the ball and got some great shots at the end of the clock.

"We had some young guys in there. Demetrius (Jackson) I thought took another step forward. (Freshman swingman) Steve Vasturia, his shot might be the shot of the game. That was a huge shot to really make us believe."

Vasturia drained three from long range, Jackson another with tenacious defense throughout. Burgett was remarkable defensively, blocking five shots including two high-flying help side rejections that energized both the crowd and the players on the floor.

Three that were not part of last year's equation helped the Irish believe. Two that have been constants over the last three seasons -- junior swingman Pat Connaughton and senior point guard Eric Atkins -- did the heavy lifting.

"They are a good offensive team," said Blue Devils star Rodney Hood, he of the game-high 27 points. "They do not turn the ball over. They get a lot of touches. None of their guys are bad ball handlers, and they really value the ball well. They were able to finish possessions. The two kids that make that whole thing go are Atkins and Connaughton. They are just solid, strong, really good basketball players."

Burgett, Vasturia, Connaughton, Jackson, and Atkins. The smallest realistic lineup Brey could have produced, dominated the game's final 10 minutes -- a 60-50 deficit turned into a 74-73 advantage.

Then the big man came back for the most important possession of the contest. Leading by one with 1:04 to play, Brey re-inserted the 6'11" Sherman back into the contest. A consistent low-post scorer, Sherman caught the ball on the right block, paused, and unleashed his trademark jump hook off the glass.

Two points, a three-point lead at 76-73, and a little breathing room.

"We just felt maybe we'd go back to him one time, and get a post-feed and get something down there and that paid off for us, it really did," said Brey.

It wasn't the big man's first contribution. Sherman scored 14 points with eight boards in 21 minutes. Teamed with first-time starter Zach Auguste (a 6'10" sophomore) and backup 5th-year senior forward Tom Knight (6'10" Notre Dame dug in early with its big men. Patience inside paid off late.

"Our size helped us get to the bonus quicker," said Brey. "We pounded away. They were just so hard to guard and the way they were shooting behind the ball screens, we just felt we had to be a little bit quicker."

The Irish were quicker to the ball all night. Diving, scratching, clawing for an unexpected win in a game they couldn't afford to lose.

They'll need a repeat Tuesday night and another eight or so thereafter as the 18-game conference season unfolds.

"We have a chance to be 2-0 in this league on Tuesday night," said Brey. "We need our crowd, just like they were (vs. Duke), I know it's going to be negative seven degrees, but for us to go 2-0 in this league before we go on the road, it would be huge."

Sans the Irish student body still on semester break, the local crowd Saturday produced the loudest (men's basketball) environment inside the Purcell Pavilion since a January 21 win over No. 1 Syracuse.

A repeat performance in the stands is unlikely Tuesday night when the Irish tip-off vs. N.C. State at 9 p.m. (not with the purported storm of the century about to hit South Bend).

A repeat effort between the lines will have to suffice. Top Stories